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How to Properly Archive Your Digital Stuff

Get your digital detritus organized.


You know that ever-growing collection of emails, movies, photos, e-books, software, unfinished viral videos, and every single PDF you’ve ever downloaded? Where is it, exactly? If you’re like me, it’s everywhere and nowhere — on SD cards and external hard drives, on old computers, Palm Pilots and smartphones, and in an assortment of cloud-based storage services, some of which you’ve possibly forgotten about.

You need to get a grip on all that stuff. Not just because you might want or need it someday — from your 2007 tax return, those old 3.2-megapixel vacation photos from Cabo in 1999 — but also because carelessly maintained data can lead to unfortunate lapses. Those old tax returns and vacation photos might end up in the wrong hands if you dump your old gear at a recycling center without wiping it clean, or you could lose your valuable professional archive just because you misplaced a password.

So take this seriously and follow our three-step strategy for corralling your digital archive.

1Consolidate. Spend a few minutes gathering up all the electronic gear in your inventory that you even suspect might have content on it that you want to preserve — the old laptops, external hard drives, cameras, memory cards and phones. Plug them in and turn them on, or insert memory cards into a reader plugged into your current computer. (Set aside any gear that is nonfunctional or for which you don’t have the appropriate cables.) Take a spin through each one and transfer your content to a single new backup hard-drive. (Our favorite: the $130 Seagate Backup Plus 5TB.) Place them in a folder labeled by the device and the approximate vintage—say, “CollegeMac_2008_2011” or “AcerDesktop_2011_2015” or “ExternalBackup_2003_2006”.

If the devices aren’t working or you can’t find the cables, make your best guess as to whether you need the content on there. If you do think you really want the content, you can order replacement cables via eBay or Amazon, or if the computer is damaged or not working, have it repaired by a local service or contact a data recovery service, such as Secure Data Recovery. If you don’t think you need the content, remove the hard drive and physically destroy it — seriously, smash it with a hammer or bend it with a vise — then recycle the hardware using this guide from the FTC.

If you have content stored in different cloud services — Flickr, Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud, Microsoft’s OneDrive, or other backup and storage systems — consolidate all those accounts and passwords into a Word or Note file (or a password manager) identified with the type of content you placed on there and the years you were actively using it. Place that file in your external hard drive along with the other retrieved content. If you can easily transfer the files from the cloud to your hard drive, consider doing so just for your own terrestrial backup, particularly if you’re no longer actively using the service.

Once you have transferred content, delete it from the original hardware even if you’re going to hold onto the gear indefinitely. (Exception: old external hard drives, which you can easily keep handy, just in case. Besides, if they’re more than a few years old, they’ll likely be of lower capacity, like 100GB, so you won’t want to use them for your current consolidation effort.) This will eliminate future worries or uncertainties about which devices have what content, and will make your life easier if you ever decide to completely clean house. Rule of thumb: keep your archive in proper storage devices, not on actual computers.

2Officiate. Now that you have all your data in one place, take your best crack at organizing it. You’ll have to develop a system that works best for you. Maybe it’s putting all photos and videos in one place or keeping all your work-related files separated from all your personal interest files. If you have too many possible content categories, a good all-purpose strategy would be to organize everything by year. If even that is too cumbersome, just keep everything in the original folders you created for the individual devices, and rely on searches for tracking stuff down as you need it. What’s most important is that it’s now all in one place.

3Relocate. At this point, you’ll want to ensure the content is easily accessible. You have two options: Cloud storage, via DropBox, iCloud, OneDrive, or terrestrial storage via a larger. I use both — active storage in DropBox as well as backup storage via terrestrial external hard drive. Ideally, you’ll use a system going forward that you’ll set up to automatically back up your content (both from home and mobile devices) to the cloud or to an external hard drive, and all of the major services do this.

One additional strategy is to create your own cloud. I’ve been using the WD My Cloud Mirror for this purpose. It taps into your home’s router and automatically backs up multiple devices, allowing you to access all the content from anywhere, without additional storage fees. Furthermore, it duplicates the content in dual internal hard drives, so even if one of those fails, you’ll still have a backup to your backup. You can plug the mobile hard drive you used for your earlier consolidation into this device, back that up, and then leave everything as-is until you decide, later on, to move/transfer your archive to a newer or larger version.

Ultimately, though, your goal is a neat, consolidated strategy, with perhaps both terrestrial and cloud-based copies, even if the content itself is a bit disorganized. What you don’t want is 25 different devices distributed throughout your house, car, office, parent’s house, girlfriend’s house, etc. Rein it all in, then sleep well at night knowing you’ve got a grip on your digital world.

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